The Next Giant Leap: A Moon Village

What will the first lunar settlement look like? Architects, scientists, and engineers are finding out.

Eugene Cernan captured Jack Schmitt running to the Rover at Station 5 during Apollo 17, NASA’s final Moon mission, in 1972. Photo © NASA

It’s a new era in space exploration. As private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have entered the field, government agencies that have traditionally led outer space activities are forming partnerships to harness the momentum of a new “space race.”

In this spirit, the European Space Agency (ESA) has invited SOM to design the first permanent human settlement in outer space. The visionary project, dubbed the “Moon Village,” brings together experts from government, academic institutions, and private industry. Everything to support human life on the Moon will be designed — from a master plan for the settlement, to the actual habitat modules for its first residents.

To kick off the collaboration, Piero Messina, from the Strategy Department at ESA, and astronaut Claudie Haigneré joined SOM architects and engineers Colin Koop, Daniel Inocente, and Georgi Petrov in conversation, along with Advenit Makaya, an advanced manufacturing engineer, and Markus Landgraf, an architecture analyst, both based at ESTEC (European Space Research and Technology Centre). They discuss the aspirations for the Moon Village, and what it could mean for life in space and here on Earth.

Why the Moon? What does this project mean for space exploration?

Piero Messina: For more than 20 years, we have worked, lived, conducted scientific experiments, and assembled infrastructure in Low Earth Orbit — thanks largely to the International Space Station and previous space stations. Mars remains the great scientific goal. But first we must think about the next step in that process. Now is the time to envision the next expansion of humankind’s presence in space on a permanent, sustainable basis. This next step is to build a settlement on the Moon.

We’re calling this initiative the “Moon Village” — and it’s a truly global endeavor. We want to leverage the capabilities of nearly every nation on Earth. We see it as an open-ended project, with Europe as the prime mover.

It should create new and numerous opportunities for science and technological research and development, as well as business. Conducting robotic, automated, and human operations on the Moon’s surface on a recurring basis will greatly enhance our confidence and sense of safety for human exploration of Mars. What’s more, working in an extreme environment, with the imperatives of sustainability and a circular economy, will foster creative and innovative solutions potentially applicable on Earth.

Advenit Makaya: Past missions to the Moon took place in the context of a space race and in a spirit of competition. Missions in the future will instead be driven by cooperation and sustainability. Whether the goal is to gain a better understanding of the history of the Moon and the solar system, to reach a new observation point for deep space, or to create a training ground for missions to further destinations, the establishment of a longterm settlement on the lunar surface is a very relevant part of future exploration efforts.

Colin Koop: Space exploration is one of the next great steps in human innovation. It’s about testing limits and pushing beyond our known understanding of the universe.

We’re also coming to grips with the reality that there’s a finite set of resources on this planet. It can’t hold all of the capacity of the human population forever — especially as we live longer and find new ways to extend the healthy portions of our life. The obvious next step is to find a way to expand the human footprint beyond planet Earth.

The Moon is important because it’s a prototyping opportunity. On the Moon, you can actually test whether it’s possible for humanity to exist outside of the protected environment of Earth. And you have to solve really complicated problems that you don’t even have to think about on Earth — like cosmic rays, and pressure differentials, and how to provide breathable air. Those are not things that architects normally spend any time thinking about. It’s important to us now, because interplanetary habitation will be a part of the future of design.

“Past missions to the Moon took place in the context of a space race and in a spirit of competition. Missions in the future will instead be driven by cooperation and sustainability.”

Georgi Petrov: The Moon’s gravitational pull is much smaller than Earth’s. Because of this, many of the resources and fuel needed to reach Mars and asteroids might be more easily procured on the Moon.

Equally important is the Moon’s incredible promise for scientific discovery. We have to consider that, unlike the dynamic surface of Earth, the Moon hasn’t changed substantially in billions of years. It’s a preserved, pristine sample of the early solar system. The Apollo mission brought back incredible scientific discoveries from a few locations on the Moon’s near side, but most of the Moon’s surface remains unexplored. This will be a chance to study it all.

James Irwin during the Apollo 15 mission, in 1971. Photo © NASA

Markus Landgraf: The 20th-century space engineer Krafft Ehricke put it in a philosophical way: “If God meant us to explore space, he would have given us a Moon.” I interpret his words to mean that the Moon’s physical characteristics — its size, rotational state, orbital period, and location at the edge of Earth’s gravity field — enable exploration with much less cost and effort than otherwise possible. More recently, the lunar scientist Paul Spudis summed up the Moon’s value in equally concise terms: “It is close, interesting, and useful.”

Unlike deep space destinations, like asteroids or Mars, the Moon can be reached by rocket any day of the year. And, because scientists who study the evolution of the Earth can find valuable insights on the Moon, there is support for space missions from a broad community. The third and probably most convincing characteristic of the Moon’s usefulness are the resources that exist on its surface. These have the potential to enable a more sustainable expansion of human presence in the solar system.

Tell us about the partnership between ESA and SOM. What does the team hope to achieve by working together?

Piero Messina: This partnership reinforces our resolve to open up our own reflections on the Moon Village, to consider its philosophy, its complexity, and how to engage global businesses in achieving what really is a broad, societal vision — a vision that happens to occur in space, and whose implication and benefits are much further reaching.

Claudie Haigneré: From the very beginning of our partnership with SOM, we’ve found converging interests and a common language. Our shared goal is to define the required infrastructures to build on the Moon, and their spatial planning and structural features. Once defined, the infrastructure will likely be deployed, assembled, or even manufactured on the Moon’s surface.

Advenit Makaya: Collaborating with SOM gives us a very interesting opportunity to get fresh insight from outside the field of space exploration. It is is very much in the spirit of ESA Director General Jan Woerner’s Moon Village vision, as it involves international partners with different expertise, united by a common interest in exploring the various aspects of a longterm lunar settlement.

Daniel Inocente: This partnership shows that we’re in the midst of a global shift. Science, engineering, and design have been considered separate disciplines, but we view them as part of a continuity. We’re bridging our individual interests together to form a collective platform — combining our expertise to generate new, actionable ideas.

There’s so much we can learn from each other. We’re exposing ourselves to domains outside of our purview, from systems engineering to ISRU (in-situ resource utilization). We’re hoping to discover and expand opportunities to accelerate scientific research, and to innovate in a multitude of disciplines. This will require intensive research, and we’ll conduct it together with ESA experts. In the end, we plan to design a holistic vision of development on the Moon.

Columbus, a science laboratory that is part of the International Space Station (ISS), is the largest single contribution to the ISS made by the European Space Agency (ESA). Photo © Daniel Inocente | SOM

Colin Koop: Up to this point, habitats in outer space have not been designed first around what humans need, psychologically and physically, to live comfortably outside this planet. The closest example we have is the International Space Station. But that’s a piece of machinery, defined mostly by its engineering, and by the fact that no one settles there permanently. We’re trying to figure out how to create a home and a working environment that will keep its inhabitants happy. We’re talking about comfort: providing a variety of spaces, the quality of natural light, the psychology of it, the impact of materials. None of us really wants to live in a tin can, like most objects designed for space.

At the same time, not everything can be defined by the designer. An architect can design a framework for a home, but then someone moves in and makes it their own. So, how do you create a settlement that functionally works, but actually gives some of the authorship to the users — the people who are going to live there? We don’t know all of the answers yet, but it’s exciting to think about.

Georgi Petrov: We want to design at several different scales. First, we’ll create a master plan with a vision of how the base will grow into a settlement in the future. Then, we’ll look at the human scale — we’ll create one or two habitat modules. Finally, we’ll develop enclosure systems and details to support the overall vision.

What does ESA hope to learn by collaborating with an architecture and engineering firm?

Claudie Haigneré: We very much look forward to learning from SOM about their approach in conceptualizing and defining complex projects, and to translate them into actionable models and elements. Our partnership embodies exactly what we would like to achieve with the Moon Village: it encompasses the spirit of pioneers and builders. We’re convinced that it will be an enriching experience for both of us.

Advenit Makaya: As we consider how to establish a longterm or permanent settlement on the Moon — and how it could be expanded from an initial, small exploration crew to a larger population of occupants — it is very interesting to talk to experienced designers of habitats on Earth. SOM might approach the design and operation of a lunar settlement differently from how a space engineer would consider it, and this may result in useful findings.

Our role is to provide guidance on how the environmental characteristics of the lunar surface would affect the necessary functions that such a human settlement must provide. The absence of atmosphere, large temperature variations, and the presence of radiation and micrometeoroids all have to be taken into account. We’re also advising on the constraints related to the transferring of materials from Earth. Then, we leave it to SOM’s architectural expertise and ingenuity to translate it into a lunar settlement design. We’re particularly interested in how local materials could be used and integrated, which is a key aspect to making the settlement sustainable.

How might the design approach to the Moon Village be different from a project on Earth?

Markus Landgraf: The essential approach to the programmatic design and civil engineering would be similar, but with vastly different parameters due to the Moon’s environment. The design team must familiarize itself with the lunar environment, and also take into account potential unknowns. We have to consider lightweight solutions, because it’s very expensive to transport materials from Earth — each kilogram may cost up to half a million euros to deliver. That’s why we’re particularly interested to find ways to use materials available on the Moon.

“On the Moon, everything has to be zero. One hundred percent closed-loop.”

Daniel Inocente: Architecture on Earth is bound to culture, science, traditions, and technology. We have to bring these considerations to architecture in space, so that we can go beyond mere engineering and find out how to sustain human life. We have an opportunity to define what an architectural paradigm beyond Earth might be.

We have to consider many different scenarios, including how to accommodate various phases of habitation and support an evolving range of activities. These activities can be industrial, exploratory, scientific, artistic, you name it. The end product cannot be a singular concept, but a very flexible framework that allows for continual growth.

Georgi Petrov: Everything that has flown in space so far has been engineered — starting with the launch vehicle, then fitting the spacecraft inside the launch vehicle, then making these systems fit inside the spacecraft itself, and then, finally, applying human considerations at the end. This has worked for short duration missions, but it’s unsustainable for longterm habitation. SOM will create a master plan with a vision of how the development will grow into a permanent future settlement.

Colin Koop: There are a lot of naive depictions of what it would mean to live on the Moon. We see this in a lot of science fiction. But there are also very detailed scientific theories on what it would take to make this possible. We want to be somewhere in the middle. We want to be able to envision a compelling yet pragmatic and achievable future.

Mid-1960s illustrations by artist Andrei Sokolov envision life on outer planets.

What does SOM hope to learn from this collaboration — and how might this knowledge be applied on Earth?

Daniel Inocente: This can become a gateway to new methods of problem-solving. ESA has a deep knowledge and expertise in how to deal with the astronomical and atomic scales. By working with them, we can significantly expand our knowledge of engineering, predictive planning, and the integration of systems that support all scales of living. The environmental challenges of maintaining a longterm presence on the Moon, and everything we hope to learn from addressing these challenges, will help us solve problems on Earth. This can help us create better cities, better buildings, and sustainable, healthy environments.

Colin Koop: A lot of the dialogue in the profession right now is about reaching zero: net zero, energy zero, water zero. It’s about using the most efficient closed loop of materials as possible to help confront climate change. Most buildings are not zero. They’re positive in some way, meaning that they consume more energy than they create, or they use more materials than they should.

On the Moon, everything has to be zero. One hundred percent closed-loop. Not just in terms of materials, but also recirculation of air, food production, etc. Everything has to be cyclical up there. There’s a limit to what you can bring from Earth. If you can solve that, it should be much easier to come back to planet Earth and resolve an issue with a public school or an office building. I think that idea — taking knowledge from an extreme situation and applying it to a more normative situation — is pretty compelling.

How does the entry of private industry into the field of space exploration influence ESA’s work?

Piero Messina: We’re very aware of how the arrival of private players is changing the established landscape of space activities. Some people call it “New Space.” We’ve dubbed it “Space 4.0,” to underline the fact that space activities are entering a new phase. We have to adapt our decision-making processes accordingly, and, at the same time, preserve the cooperation among nations that has enabled space activities over the last 60 years. We have to streamline our working methods. This is a common challenge to all public players in space.

Claudie Haigneré: The Moon Village will also be a building block for forming new ways to conduct business and cultivating a new role for ESA. We’ll maintain our traditional role as an R&D agency that directs and supervises investments made by its members. But with the Moon Village, we will serve more as a facilitator, an “honest broker.” Leveraging on our technical expertise and space program experience, we hope to bring new and established players together to achieve a future vision for humankind’s place in the universe.

Are we seeing more opportunities for collaboration between space agencies and private companies? What might this mean for the future?

Piero Messina: A reinforced alliance between public and private players, and between space and non-space entities, will make space activities more sustainable — especially exploration, which so far has been a public initiative. Public-private partnerships have been common in more mature areas of space activities, and their benefits extend to our societies and economies.

As we start looking at space as a place for economic opportunities — like the current interest in space resources exploitation, in manufacturing in space, and so on — the collaboration between space agencies and private companies acquires a new and reinforced interest.

Daniel Inocente: In August 2016, the U.S. government made a historic decision to allow a private company to pioneer the first commercial space mission to the Moon. This kind of cooperation between private industry and government is streamlining the introduction of new technologies into the market. Space agencies have an essential role in creating these opportunities.

Agencies such as ESA or NASA create a clarity of purpose that can guide participation across industry sectors and disciplines. As this takes place, we will begin to see an acceleration of innovation. With the right commercial framework, an emerging market in space will thrive — and it opens up new possibilities for unconventional space activities, including new forms of architecture. This is an exciting notion for all of us.

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